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Gentoo Linux Reloaded

by Daniel Robbins

Hi there. I'm sure many of you know that in addition to writing Linux articles, I'm also very involved in a free software project called Gentoo Linux. In this article, I'll try to explain what Gentoo Linux is all about and also tantilize you with all the neat things we have in the works for Gentoo Linux 1.4, which we're currently developing and should be available from our Web site (at by the time you read this article. So, what is unique about Gentoo Linux? Here are the answers.

Introducing Gentoo Linux

Gentoo Linux is a fast, modern distribution with a clean and flexible design. In this respect, Gentoo may appeal to Slackware, Linux From Scratch or BSD users. Unlike most Linux distros, Gentoo has a package system reminiscent of BSD's ports. Available packages are distributed as source, in the form of "ebuild" auto-build scripts, which are kept continually up-to-date by the Gentoo Linux development team.

Portage, our ports system, is really the heart of Gentoo Linux. Portage allows you to set up Gentoo Linux the way you like it, with the optimization settings that you want, and with optional build-time functionality (like GNOME, KDE, MySQL, ALSA, LDAP support, etc.) enabled or disabled as you desire. If you don't want GNOME on your system, your apps won't have optional GNOME support enabled, and if you do, then they will. We prefer to think of Gentoo Linux as a meta-distribution or Linux technology engine. You decide what kind of system you want, and Portage will create it for you.

Here's a snapshot of Ferry Meyndert's Gentoo Linux GNOME2 desktop. Ferry (also known as MOrpheus) is responsible for a lot of the security work for Gentoo Linux:

A GNOME 2 desktop running under Gentoo Linux

We maintain an official Gentoo Linux Portage tree that contains the most recent versions of our ebuild autobuild scripts. By updating your Portage tree, you gain instant access to the latest and greatest Linux technologies and applications. Tell Portage what ebuild you'd like to install, and Portage will auto-download, unpack, patch, configure, compile, and install the package. Thanks to Portage auto-dependency resolution, you can install KDE 3.0 or GNOME 2.0 by typing in a single command. The resulting binaries will be optimized, customized, and installed to your exact specifications.

Social Contract

Another important aspect of Gentoo Linux is our social contract, closely modeled after that of the Debian project. This contract ensures that Gentoo Linux is and will remain free software, that developers will release all their contributions to Gentoo Linux under the GNU General Public License, and that Gentoo Linux will never depend upon a proprietary piece of software. In addition, our social contract sets certain standards for developer interaction with the larger, free software community, including collaborating with others outside the project, sending bug reports and improvments to the "upstream" authors, and properly documenting our efforts. Finally, our social contract ensures that we will have a bug report database that's open to the public.

Gentoo Linux 1.4

Now let's take a look at what Gentoo Linux 1.4 offers. The 1.4 release includes many significant improvements.

Probably the most significant change is Gentoo Linux 1.4's use of gcc 3.2 rather than 2.95.3. With gcc 3.2 come a host of performance improvements, including full support the for Athlon, Athlon XP, Pentium III, Pentium 4 and PowerPC G4 processors. This also includes support for the MMX, SSE SSE2, 3DNow! and AltiVec instruction sets. The gcc-3.2 also produces significantly tighter code than the gcc 2.95.x series and even the 3.1 series of compilers. It is now possible to optimize your Gentoo system fully for Pentium 4 and Athlon XP CPUs by using the -march=pentium4 -march=athlon-xp gcc settings respectively.

Combined with gcc 3.2, Gentoo Linux 1.4 supports the following architectures and CPU types:

  • x86:
    Traditional optimizations: i486, i586, i686, K6
    Intel Pentium III, Pentium 4 (ie. -march=pentium4)
    AMD Athlon, XP, MP and Duron (ie. -march=athlon-xp)

  • PowerPC:
    New optimizations: G3, G4, and AltiVec support.
    G4-optimized, AltiVec-enabled code is incredibly fast.

  • UltraSparc:
    True 64-bit support

  • Alpha Processor:
    Official Alpha Processor support will premiere with Gentoo Linux 1.4

Currently, Gentoo Linux for the Alpha Processor is maturing at an incredible pace. At the time this article was written, XFree86 4.2, GNOME 2 and the Gimp run on the Alpha. For our official 1.4 release, it's very likely that we will even have a Gentoo/Alpha bootable installation CD. The initial port of Gentoo Linux to the Alpha Processor was completed by our lead Alpha developer (Bjoern Brauel) in just two days.

Fast Installation: The Reference Platform

In past releases, the Gentoo Linux installation process involved building at least part of Gentoo Linux directly from source. For Gentoo Linux 1.4, we now offer a full binary Gentoo Linux "reference platform" that installs in minutes. We have clearly and carefully defined our binary reference platform to provide a set of reasonable build-time defaults for users who want to get Gentoo Linux up and running as quickly as possible. Thanks to the Gentoo Linux reference platform, a full installation of Gentoo Linux--including XFree86, GNOME, KDE and OpenOffice--can be completed in under an hour.

Our new reference platform is also a great help for VARs, since it allows them to provide a reasonably configured Gentoo Linux system for their customers easily and efficiently.

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